American Masters: Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built



9-11 p.m., Wednesday, May 2

Ahmet Ertegun, the son of a Turkish ambassador to the U.S., led a life for more than a half-century that, maybe more than any other, was intricately interwoven with the artists and business of pop music. One assumes his life story is rich with personal observations and experiences, as well as opinions on a vast array of subjects about contemporary society and pop culture.

But don't look too hard for any of that in this two-hour "American Masters" profile of the co-founder of Atlantic Records, the preeminent independent label until its purchase by Warner Bros.-Seven Arts in 1967. Unlike most "American Masters," this is less a nuanced portrait than an out-and-out tribute to Ertegun and his record label.

Although it is largely uncritical, the documentary written, directed and co-produced by Susan Steinberg, is comprehensive and well-organized. Especially impressive is its collection of vintage footage of many of the performers who were among the first to sign on with Atlantic. This rare collection of prized clips is sufficient reason to watch.

Instead of interviewing Ertegun, Steinberg set up meetings between him and others, mostly former Atlantic artists, including Ray Charles, Mick Jagger, Phil Collins, Aretha Franklin and Bette Midler, who does double duty as narrator. Steinberg filmed the reunions and used some of the stories that were recounted and a lot of the mutual admiration.

"We'll meet several of Ahmet's friends and, as always, we'll have a good time," Midler said at the outset. These meetings showed Ertegun's ease among the artists. He was as much a friend and mentor as a business associate. At the same, time, though, by focusing almost entirely on his professional life, the meetings fail to illuminate the totality of his personality. They were filmed during a period of four years, concluding not long before his death Dec. 14.

Arguably, Ertegun's greatest contributions to the world of popular music, and the world as well, was his discovery of the artistry of black performers and his determination that they receive recognition at a time when racial discrimination severely limited their opportunities. To her credit, Steinberg demonstrates the point over and over again without turning Ertegun into a one-dimensional crusader.

The diplomat's son, with his egghead look and his thick glasses, played against type to become an icon in the record industry and, as the documentary barely hints at, something of a playboy. Those unfamiliar with his story or the history of pop music in the mid-20th century will find this docu rewarding. But there's still room for a more critical look at Ertegun and the role of Atlantic Records in a broader context.

A Thirteen/WNET New York and Warner Music Group production
Executive producers: Susan Lacy, John Beug
Producer: Phil Carson
Co-producer/director/teleplay: Susan Steinberg
Cinematographers: Eddie Marritz, Nick Doob, David Chilton
Editor: Pamela Scott Arnold
Narrator: Bette Midler